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Authentic Leadership Can Be Bad Leadership

| July 23, 2013

by Jim Bruce

This essay first appeared in the Harvard Business Review blog and comes from the pens of Deborah Gruenfeld, Maghadam Family Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Lauren Zander is Founder of the Handel Group.

Gruenfeld and Zander posit that authenticity is of great value as a leader quality worth aspiring to.  They point out that acting in a way that feels truthful, candid, and connected to who you really are is important.  Except when you are being a real jerk and then it’s highly problematic.

While individuals are encouraged to be themselves, you do get the whole person, and sometimes we can be pretty nasty – overly critical, judgmental, non-communicative, etc.  These behaviors, while authentic, are not terribly helpful.

Gruenfeld and Zander suggest a five-step process to work on those less than helpful elements in each of our authentic selfs:

  1. Find out how you are seen to others.  Ask someone you trust to give your feedback about what they find difficult in working with you.  Listen and write it down in your reporter’s words.  Say thank you.  Don’t explain or justify.
  2. Talk back.  Find a quiet place and adequate time.  Take out your notes and respond to what you heard in writing.  What were your thoughts when you were listening?  Replay your justifications in your mind.  Give voice to it in as authentic a voice as you can make.  Do it out loud, just to yourself.  Acknowledge that it is the real you.
  3. Find an alternative.  The next time this urge comes upon you, what will you do?  Think it through.
  4. Clean it up.  Go back to your colleague who was open with you and apologize for being difficult.  Make a commitment to a plan to clean up your act.  Seek this colleague’s help by asking for direct feedback on your plan.
  5. Raise the stakes.  Commit to a real consequence for any repeats of the bad behavior.  The consequence needs both to be constructive and to have a real personal cost to you.

The authors close their essay by saying “Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you authentic self, unleashed in all of its glory, is your key to effective leadership.”  It is most likely not!

Take some time this week and get some real feedback about the dark side of the authentic you.  And, then commit to do something about it.

.  .  .  jim